This is what: an interview with Justin Ringle
Back in New York, I'm wearing jackets and even sweaters again. The frost of fall's setting in, but what's really put the chill in my bones is the new Horse Feathers album. House With No Home, a stunning follow-up to the stunning Words Are Dead, is a record that'll mess with your body chemistry. Hearing those elegiac strings or Justin Ringle's tender voice might make your heart murmur or your posture slacken. Its soft, soaring melodies might prompt Thoreau-style walks in the woods or fingers inching toward the repeat button. But most of all, as the songs take hold, House With No Home will raise the hairs on your arms and goosebumps on your skin, no matter how many layers you're wearing.
Here's my conversation with Horse Feathers frontman Justin Ringle:
Nerd Litter: So tell me about how this new album came about. The inspiration behind it, what you were trying to do with it.
Justin Ringle: A lot of it was an evolution from the last record. I think there was a little bit more of a deliberate approach. I wanted to make it a little more fleshed out, not quite as spare. And it just turned out that a lot of the tunes and the tempos ended up being a bit more up. This record didn’t turn out to be quite as dour as the last one. But I didn’t necessarily start working on this record with the intent of making it really cling. It just happened to be the music that I was writing.
NL: Are there any songs on the album that particularly stand out to you or have any special significance?
JR: Yeah. The first track, "Curs in the Weeds," is one of my favorites, as well as the last track, "Father." "Father" was spurned on by a really awful experience I had concerning a friend’s cousin, who I'd known for a long time, dying this last year. So that one has some pretty personal elements to it. But "Curs In The Weeds," I had just gotten back from our second national tour. I got home and I’d written that song right after, and... I don’t know, I just like it. (Laughs.)
NL: Something I’ve noticed about "Curs in the Weeds" specifically but also about your music in general is that the lyrics tend to be oblique or impressionistic. You know, I kind of get a sense of what’s going on in the song, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. So I’m wondering if that’s a conscious aesthetic you’re working toward or if that's just the way you naturally write.
JR: A little bit of both. I actually try to stay away sometimes from pure storytelling because in terms of the types of music that I play and listen to, I’ve always felt that particular brand of songwriting is pretty well-covered. (Laughs.) And I’m interested in how words work together, as opposed to a purely narrative approach to songwriting. I really want the words to work with the melodies and reinforce each other. But yeah, I try to stay away from being too literal with it, so that's conscious. Though I do just write that way as well.
NL: The style tends to remind me of a lot of contemporary poetry. Is that something that’s influenced your songwriting?
JR: Somewhat. I am a fan of poetry... You know, that’s been brought up before, but it’s not like I’m purposely trying to fuse them. I’m more really interested in how words sound as opposed to creating some kind of narrative framework with concepts. So it does end up being impressionistic, but I know what those things mean to me, and I know the feelings, the impetus, for writing those things. But it’s really painstaking for me as a songwriter to say exactly what they mean, because it allows whoever’s listening to it to own it more.
NL: Well, going along with those ideas, you have instrumental tracks on both of the albums, and
I’m wondering what the logic behind that is.
JR: Some of that came from Peter and Heather [Broderick], who I’ve collaborated with for both of these records. They’re both big fans of instrumental music. The first record, we wanted something that created a mood that was different from what we were doing, as a segue. And on this record, we wanted to do something again on the second side, but what we came up with is actually the vocal melody to the last track played on the piano. And I like it. I think it rounds out the second side of the record in a nice, succinct way. It’s only two minutes, but it changes the feeling there.
NL: It’s interesting because the reprise comes before the actual song. It’s a strange choice. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that before.
JR: Yeah. Actually, that’s funny. You’re the first person to bring that up. We initially planned to have “Father” start the second side of the record, and then cap the record with the instrumental. But it just ended up that I liked it better before and we’d already named it that way. Musically, it is the reprise, but it kind of becomes the intro. It’s a preview, I guess.
NL: How does the songwriting process work between you and Peter and Heather? How do the songs get their starts with the three of you?
JR: It’s worked lots of different ways. And I’d say every song is slightly different in terms of how it came to fruition. Oftentimes, I come to the table with songs in terms of verses and choruses and the main melodies, and then I’ll throw them at them. Usually Peter first to see how he responds. And then sometimes we’ll amend the arrangements to account for what he’s doing. We might make the instrumental part go a little longer, and then he and Heather will, once it’s established, they’ll work together on the string interplay. At that point, we’re usually all working on it, but that’s only for half the songs. Some of them are more like "this is it," and they play to it from there and come up with their parts. So it’s all different types of ways. This time, we also worked a bit more in the studio and that was interesting.
NL: What does interesting mean?
JR: This record had somewhat of a timeline. We started in the summer and then went out on tour and then got signed to Kill Rock Stars. And when we came back, the record had to be done by a specific date so I got home from the tour and started to write. When Peter came back, we recorded for two weeks in December, January, and then I worked on the record until the end of February. Kind of a weird process, having to write like that, but that’s the way it goes... I’m usually pretty slow. I write songs over six-month periods, not a couple of months. I’ve always liked working on things, but rarely do I sit down and write a whole song at a time. I’m usually working on six ideas at once.
NL: How did playing live influence the recorded versions? Did that change the process for you?
JR: Somewhat... Not really. We’ve played some of the songs live for quite a while before we recorded them. And some of them we never played live at all. Some of them we got a pretty good idea of what we were going after, just because of how we played them live. And the ones that weren’t, it's funny, now we’re doing the backwards approach. Now we’re trying to reconstruct it to make the songs for a live situation.
NL: Tell me a little about your work with the Portland Cello Project.
JR: Well, I’ve done a couple shows with them. They basically take a tune and arrange it for multiple cellos. For us, it’s easy, well it's not easy, but a little easier than their work with some rock bands, because we already have the strings there, there’s already a basis for some of that. One of the songs we’ve done was released on an EP that they recorded this summer, the song “Mother’s Sick” off the last record. They’re really a community project, they’re pretty ingrained with the local music community here and it’s really cool what they’re doing.
NL: Do you feel pretty connected to the music community in Portland?
JR: I do. I’ve been here for about four years now. It doesn’t take too long to be known, by everybody in the community and for you to know them. You run into people in Portland constantly, it’s almost small town-ish in that way. So yes, definitely. I don’t necessarily feel completely musically connected, although there are other things here in a similar vein. Ever since we started touring nationally, I’ve felt a little more disconnected just because you don’t play the constant local shows and play with your friends all the time. It does change once you play out of town, but I think that’s typical for people.
NL: Do you think there’s some Portland influence or Idaho influence in your music somehow?
JR: I would say so. It’s hard not to be. Any place, the things you hear have a lot to do with the weather in terms of different moods. The winter here is pretty much spent indoors and it’s gray for about seven months. Musically, Idaho definitely influenced me much more, because I lived there a lot longer. Idaho, the most influential thing about it is that it’s culturally a vacuum. I spent a lot of time inside listening to music, practicing and seeking out things and writing in much more than I would have if I would’ve lived here at a younger age. Here, in a city like this, you attach yourself to things a lot sooner and it’s a lot more available. So living removed from that really influenced me. Here, you’re kind of forced to become an introvert. The whole town becomes introverted come January. I think that’s always been a major component of Northwest music overall; you have a lot of people who've spent a lot of time playing in basements in the winter.
NL: Going along with that, you have the cover image of the album, which is really striking. How did you end up choosing that?
JR: I was trying to figure out how to do the artwork, and I contacted this local designer. He did a bunch of illustrations for me, and I didn’t really feel like they fit. But he was like, I found this picture and you should really see it. He was like, this is what I think the record looks like. And I saw it, and I was like, yep! (Laughs.) That’s it. And so we contacted the photographer out of Seattle and he let us use it for free. It’s kind of dark but I think it’s a really succinct image for what the record sounds like.
NL: It’s interesting because I was just reading a review of the album in Local Cut, and the reviewer was talking about how it sounds incredibly autumnal to him, and I’d been listening to it at the end of summer so for me it feels like an end-of-summer record. So it’s interesting that you think it’s so deeply embedded in winter. Do you think that it’ll make more sense to me in a few months?
JR: Mmm... maybe. I could definitely see that. I’ve always felt that our music feels a little bit more like fall. Slower, more contemplative stuff makes sense with a change of seasons. But we got a lot of that from our last record too. It came out about the same time of year, and it started to go to press people right before it was released, and with the first people out there, there was the same talk of the hazy end-of-summer sound. But then as soon as the record came out, it decidedly became a fall record. (Laughs.) So I don’t know. I’d like to think it can work in all seasons, but it’s a pretty subjective thing.
NL: Well, I’m going to rent a cabin in a few months and give it a try. I'll let you know what happens.
JR: (Laughs.) You should. You’re in New York City?
NL: Yeah, but I just spent the summer up in Montreal, so everyone kept telling me how I was there at the prime time. How they spend spend six months indoors because it’s so brutally cold. So I can relate to what you’re saying about everyone living for this one season, this one surge of creativity, because otherwise, life largely shuts down.
JR: We were there last year for a tour, and I heard a similar story.
NL: So what have you been doing since you’ve come back from tour?
JR: I’ve pretty much been preparing for the record to come out. And I have some different personnel now. The live shows are more of a rotating cast than they have been before. The tour that I’m doing this fall, I’m going to have three different incarnations of the group. There’s pretty much a different group for every tour. Not entirely different, but people are rotating in and out. I’ve been working on that. Just getting ready for that. It’s been a bit of transition working with Kill Rock Stars too, so I’ve been getting into the work flow with them.
NL: Are you going to do a national tour for this?
JR: Yeah. The record came out on September 7th and we’re doing a couple of regional things. And then starting on the second of October, we’re starting a West Count launch. Then we’re flying to England to tour the UK for a while. We’re doing the first part of the tour with José González. I’m really excited about that.
NL: They can probably relate to the gloomy weather too.
JR: (Laughs.) Maybe that'll work in our favor. And then, let's see, we’re flying to Chicago and we’ll do two-and-a-half, maybe three weeks in the East. We’re doing a stretch with this band from Portland on Sub Pop called Blitzen Trapper, and do some things maybe in the East, maybe the Southeast. I’m pretty excited. But it’ll be long. It’ll be pretty intense.
NL: How do you fare on the road? Do you enjoy the touring life?
JR: Yeah, it's all right. It's not easy all the time, that's for sure. We're a different breed in some ways, because it's not like we're not a rock band. We're not playing crazy indie-rock situations or anything, so it's definitely pretty mellow on the road. We don't go too hard.
NL: I could see that. Incidentally, I talked to your old tourmate Kevin O'Connor a few years back when Beat Romantic came out and I asked him if he could have anyone sing on a Talkdemonic record, who he'd pick and he said you. So I'm wondering if that's something that's been discussed or might even happen.
JR: Yeah, actually. Kevin and I have been talking about starting a project for a while. He's one of my best friends. But frankly, both of our bands are pretty full-time so it's been hard to get anything off the ground. In the future, we might try to do some things, but right now, things are so busy for us. There's so much going on at the moment already.
* MP3: "Curs In The Weeds" - Horse Feathers from House With No Home
* MP3: "Rude To Rile" - Horse Feathers from House With No Home [Buy it]
* MySpace: Horse Feathers